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Design process: The power of first scribbles

I just recently experienced it again: the magic of starting a new project from scratch. Immersing into a new, unknown subject matter, getting to know the expert and players, outlining first assumptions and ideas. There are a lot of unknowns in the beginning – which adds to the initial excitement.

Repeatedly, I have experienced how much value early sketches and visualizations can help to bring clarity and shared understanding to a fresh project.

Read on for a small ode to an essential tool in the design process.

What kills most projects

Lack of dialogue and communication usually isn‘t the problem when kickstarting a new project.

A lot of voices want to be heard, especially when a project starts. It’s in the nature of the spoken or written word, that it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. So, we quickly seem to agree on ideas when talking about a new project, when actually it‘s only an assumption of consensus.

At the start of any new project, people usually have wildly different ideas about what success looks like. […] The assumption of consensus is what kills most projects.

From „The Agile Samurai“ by Jonathan Rasmusson

Here, the power of quick scribbles, early in a project can help: to make the unseen visible and start a discussion.

Don’t tell – show & discuss, early in the design process

Sketching things on paper (or whiteboards, pixel canvases etc.) adds another dimension to thoughts: Making ideas and concepts visible greatly reduces ambiguity.

Even if there are lots of unknowns in the early phases of a project: I have only made the best experiences by taking what we have at that moment – research, facts, ideas, opinions, hypotheses – ans turning them into quick drafts. Not one, but lots of drafts. Lots of different directions and versions.

These scribbles are then powerful tools for discussion in the team, with potential users and stakeholders. It’s not their quality that matters, it‘s simply about creating shared knowledge and understanding, based on visual artefacts.

Also, scribbles can be used for testing ideas quickly and find out what about it could work and what not.

Light the fire for an idea

The purpose of early scribbles is not to think about every detail that a potential solution has to take care of. It‘s mostly about finding out, if an idea could work somehow after all. I love this moment in the ideation phase of the design process when an idea „just clicks“, and pieces start to connect to each other.

In those moments, one can feel the power of a concept, despite knowing that lots of details are still unclear.

Early scribbles are the basis for the journey to interactive prototypes and products

At early points in a project, I think it‘s more important to work out the rough, overall idea than to work on details too soon. Better to test the overall picture, when it‘s still fragile enough, than later on, when a lot of energy and time has been invested. We can further work on the details and keep improving our solution later on.

Squiggle or Teapot – visualizing the design process

There is a famous illustration of the design process, that tries to summarize it with a single line stroke. „The design squiggle“ was sketched by Damien Newman and has become an icon for creatives around the globe.

It shows the design process journey, beginning on the left in a mess, going to a single point of focus on the right: the design.

The design twiggle – a great visualization of the chaotic early design process

I‘ve used this image in client presentations to give an outlook of the design process for better understanding.

At first, the idea of the chaotic design process can be frightening, especially for „anxious“ clients, since it focuses on the chaotic nature of design work. Lately, I discovered an interesting blog article on „The teapot model“ of the design process: it uses a different analogy to visualize the design process. By translating it to a story of travel and perspective, it gives a more relatable explanation to non-designers.

Just recently, I started working on a cool new project with a new team. The power of discussing quick scribbles together overwhelmed me once again. It‘s magic every time …

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